Listening to Free….

I’ve spent much of the last week ploughing my way through ‘Songs of Yesterday’,  a 5-CD retrospective by British blues-rockers Free.

Free were yet another band emerging from the huge pool of talent assembled by Island Records in the late 1960’s and were given their name by Alexis Korner.  Free was not their first stab at fame; bassist Andy Fraser had already done a short stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, even though he was only 15 years old at the time.  The other members, themselves not much older,  had been involved in a variety of bands  in the London area, though only guitarist Paul Kossoff and Fraser were Londoners.  Kossoff was the son of well-known Jewish actor David Kossoff, who campaigned against drug use after Paul’s early death in 1976.

Like Led Zeppelin, who emerged at around the same time, Free had a very distinct style characterised by Kirke’s thunderous drumming, Rogers’ gravel-throated vocals and Kossoff’s flowing guitar.  Their first album from 1968 , ‘Tons of Sobs’ was at times a fairly ponderous blues-rock album.  What rescued the band from probable obscurity was the inclusion of one of the better tracks from the album – ‘I’m a mover’- on Island’s hugely successful and iconic sampler ‘You can all join in’. Free ‘joined in’ with the  famous mass photo taken in Hyde Park and their reputation was definitely enhanced by rubbing shoulders with the likes of Traffic, Jethro Tull and Spooky Tooth.

Kirke, Rogers & Fraser front and centre with Winwood  & Capaldi  etc lagging behind

1969 saw the release of ‘Free’  (often referred to as ‘Free 2’) which featured stronger, more commercial songs and a more varied approach, with several acoustic and semi-acoustic songs giving the album a distinctly pastoral feel.  The following year saw Free make their big breakthrough with the release of ‘Fire and Water’, a more electric album that featured some of their most powerful songs to date. 

‘All right now’, a fairly undistinguished blues-rocker, was the big popular hit single of the summer of 1970 and propelled Free from semi -obscurity to being major pop stars almost overnight.  From  ranks of denim-clad boys grooving on Kossoff’s guitar work, Free suddenly acquired an audience of squealing girls who shrieked appreciatively every time Rogers thrust his groin towards the audience (which was fairly often).

Free; the classic line-up, from L-R, Simon Kirke, Paul Rogers, Paul Kosssoff, Andy Fraser

Free released ‘Highway’ late in 1970 and, looking back, it was probably their most coherent album, successfully blending the harder blues-influenced material with the acoustic songs in a way they hadn’t quite managed before.  Again, there was a distinct pastoral edge to proceedings, but  the bluesy follow-up single, ‘The Stealer’, though an infinitely better song than ‘All right now’, failed to make much impact on the singles charts.  At this point, it was possible to sense that the band had lost some of their original momentum; clearly they believed strongly in ‘Highway‘ and ‘The Stealer’ and the relatively poor sales of both seemed to have a negative effect on the morale of the band.

There would be more hit singles in 1971, but apart from a well-received live album (also 1971), Free seemed to lose their way and split up briefly, pursuing a series of largely undistinguished solo projects.  Reconvening in 1972, they produced two disappointing studio albums with augmented or amended line-ups.  The magic spell had been broken around the time of ‘Highway‘ and the band never truly recovered.

Paul Rogers on stage at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

Over the years, Island have released numerous Free compilations on both vinyl and CD; ‘The Free Story’, ‘The Best of Free’, ‘Molten Gold’ and so on.  These are all fairly standard ‘Greatest Hits’ packages, but ‘Songs of Yesterday’ is rather different.  For a start, very little of the material on the 5 CD’s has been issued previously, being either unreleased live material from the gigs in Croydon and Sunderland that produced 1971’s ‘Free Live’, alternate takes or remixes of previously released studio material or unreleased/out of print tracks by the splinter groups like Sharks and Peace who formed in the wake of Free’s original split back in 1971.

This package is now out-of-print and on offer for seriously delusional sums in the Amazon marketplace.  It’s worth pursuing only if you are a serious Free fan.  If you are, there’s plenty here to keep you amused, though nothing that will surprise you.  The alternative versions and mixes are solidly entertaining and the additional live tracks still sound great today.  The band contrive a terrific live cover version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’, very much in the style of  Cream after which the MC comes out to announce that, having played three encores,  the band are too exhausted to play a fourth.  In a dry Sunderland accent, he then tries to interest the crowd in the next band to play at the venue…Blodwyn Pig.  Unintentionally hilarious.

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